More to Forensic Science Than Meets the Eye
While you may have seen agents Abby and Gibbs navigate a crime scene on “NCIS,” there’s more to forensic science than meets the TV fan’s eye. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less cool.
“I don’t want [students] getting a job and thinking, ‘I’m so disappointed, this is nothing like TV,’” says Mason forensic scientist Jocelyn Prendergast. “Forensic science is exciting in its own way — without the glamorized side of it.”
Mason’s program, which recently added an undergraduate component, is so exciting, in fact, that best-selling mystery novelist David Baldacci has said he would like to sit in on a class as part of his research. Baldacci, who lives in Reston, Va., spoke with Mason’s forensic science students after he met program director Bill Whildin at a local book signing.
“Our seminar series is a special part of this program,” says Whildin, a retired Fairfax County police officer who worked for more than 10 years as a medicolegal death investigator. Because of Mason’s proximity to Washington, D.C., he says, the program is able to bring in outstanding guest speakers, not only novelists like Baldacci, but also experts from almost every federal agency.
“It’s a great way for students to network and learn about the agencies, the job opportunities and the credentials they would need to get in,” Whildin says.
Forensics deals with the science that is used as evidence in criminal law, and students can focus on a wide array of concentrations, including fingerprint analysis, crime scene photography or toxicology.
“One of the biggest misconceptions students have is that one person gets to do a little bit of everything,” says Prendergast, who worked as a research chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology before coming to Mason. “Forensic science is actually very specialized. It takes years and years of training and mentorship in one specific field.”
But before students in Mason’s new undergraduate program choose their specialty, they are given a solid foundation of basics. One of the two entry-level courses, Survey of Forensic Science, is taught by a 20-year member of the FBI, Joseph Dizinno, and covers DNA, evidence handling and the law. Introduction to Criminalistics, taught by Prendergast, delves into crime scene investigation, firearms, blood spatter and drugs of abuse.
Classes in the program are a blend of lecture and hands-on experience. For example, a class on forensic biotrace, which covers trace evidence — hairs, glass, soil and fibers — will require analysis in one of the labs. Next fall, Prendergast will teach Forensic Chemistry and Microscopy, which will go more in-depth into toxicology, drugs of abuse and fire investigation.
As part of the program, students also tour off-campus facilities such as police crime labs, and they have the opportunity to practice at a forensic dig site (this year, they will be digging up the remains of a pig). They also put their skills to the test by studying mock crime scenes.
The interdisciplinary forensic science program has kept pace with the field, Whilden says, pointing out that many agencies have raised their accreditation standards and now require a forensic science degree. Mason currently offers a master’s program, a graduate certificate and an undergraduate major and minor. Whildin says that the new undergraduate program is the perfect foundation for prospective graduate students.
“We try to make our students as marketable as they can be,” says Whildin. “And close to 90 percent of students who enter the certificate program like it so much that they convert over into the master’s program. It’s a great compliment to the university and to our program.”